'You've been asking for a punch all night'
The fight involved Clem Hill, Australia's captain and legendary batsman, and Peter McAlister, a former Victorian batsman who had played eight Tests without distinction, and who had for some time been allied to the Australian Board of Control (BOC). McAlister was not well-liked, and had attracted controversy when, as chairman of selectors, he had immediately picked himself as vice-captain on the 1909 England tour. His offhand treatment by many of that squad - including Hill - further soured his attitude towards the players. But McAlister had persuaded the board to send him as he was prepared effectively to act as its spy, so the players' shunning of him was not all that surprising.
The animosity between the fledgling board and the players dated back almost a decade. The board regarded the cricketers with a level of disdain more associated with the MCC in London. Meanwhile, many of the players viewed the board with deep distrust verging on loathing, seeing them as profiting off their abilities while being unwilling to share the spoils.
The real confrontation which was looming was about the appointment of the manager for the 1912 tour of England. The players had until then chosen their own man, but the board wanted their choice. The role was crucial in that the manager materially affected how much the players earned from the trip, and there was a suspicion, which was proved right, was that a board appointee would leave them out of pocket. Almost all the players were amateurs in name only.
Hill and McAlister's dislike of each other was even more deep-rooted. For some time, McAlister had been making disrespectful and, occasionally, obnoxious comments about Hill, as both player and captain, privately and to the media. Shortly before the meeting at the New South Wales Cricket Association offices in Sydney, McAlister sent Hill an inflammatory telegram suggesting that he drop himself from the Australian side.
Once the meeting started, McAlister continued in the same vein, sniping at Hill's captaincy during the last two Tests. Hill, in no mood to bite his lip, told him that "he was no judge of cricket," turning the tables with a barbed challenge to McAlister regarding his own - limited - abilities.
The schoolboy slanging match continued, before McAlister sent Hill's blood pressure soaring by claiming that he himself had been as "good a captain as [Warwick] Armstrong, [Victor] Trumper or you." Hill snarled that perhaps McAlister should captain the side himself, adding that in his opinion McAlister knew nothing about cricket.
Thereafter accounts vary, but the best summary can be found in Gideon Haigh's excellent biography of Armstrong, The Big Ship. Some witnesses said that Hill delivered a slap to the face, others that the blow was much harder. Whatever the truth, a full-blown brawl ensured, lasting almost 20 minutes, and at one point Hill had to be restrained from hurling McAlister out of the third-storey window. Most accounts agreed that Hill won the bout, and as he exited the room, the bloodied and prostrate McAlister yelled after him: "Come back and fight, you coward."
With the scrap over, Hill returned to his hotel and, amazingly, the selection meeting continued. Equally surprising was that Hill was retained as both player and captain.
News of the melee was all over the newspapers as early as the next morning, as supporters of both camps engaged in some early attempts at spin. The public generally sided with Hill, who was enthusiastically applauded when he went out to bat in the fourth Test at Melbourne. The pressure took its toll on Hill, and Australia lost the last two Tests and his own form fell away.
But, as is so often the case, the board was to have its way. It voted to force through its right to appoint the manager, and as a result six leading players - Hill, Armstrong, Trumper, Tibby Cotter, Hanson Carter and Vernon Ransford - refused to tour. A weakened Australian side were well beaten in the first - and only - triangular tournament.
Hill and Trumper did not play for Australia again, but Armstrong continued to be a thorn in the side of the Australian board for another decade. McAlister faded from the scene, and his association with the game dwindled. But his role in one of the game's liveliest selection meetings will never be forgotten.
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